Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 DAC Review 
Home Theater Accessories Acoustics, EQ & Room Tuning
Written by Andre Marc   
Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Channel Islands Audio (CIA), has been around for a number of years producing high value, versatile audio components and accessories. Their Class D switching amplifiers have gotten rave reviews for their small footprint, efficiency, and sound quality. CIA also makes passive preamps, power filters, and upgrades to other manufactures products, like the Logitech Squeezebox and Wadia iTransport (and Squeezebox Duet) power supplies, which by all accounts, dramatically improve the performance of both.

CIA also makes a DAC with the same design principles as many of their other products, simplicity, excellent build quality, and all made in the U.S.A. Dusty Vawter, head honcho at CIA, has a long history in high end audio, and is very customer oriented. CIA sells its products both direct from the factory, and through Music Direct, the well known audiophile e-tailer.

The VDA-2, which sells for $599, is small, and comes stock with a decent quality wall wart power supply. This review of the VDA-2 is reflects its performance with the optional outboard VAC-1 power supply, which sells for $179. The VAC-1 shares the same dimensions as the VDA-2, as well as the same brushed aluminum faceplate.  The VAC-1 has an IEC connector so you can use the power cord of your choice, if you decide not to use the stock cord. The units connect together via an umbilical cord.

Rear Ports
Design:

The VDA-2 DAC was designed with the notion that simpler is better. According to CIA, “traditional DAC designs use brick-wall digital filters, usually followed by more analog filtering to reduce sampling noise, but cause signal degradation in the process. Another approach has been to use no filtering at all, but this adds noise to the analog signal. Both of these designs have their strengths and weaknesses, but neither tends to be a good trade-off. Our design uses only a mild "slow roll-off" digital filter and first order analog filter to tame the sampling noise. This architecture has reduced filtering artifacts compared to brick-wall types, and lower sampling noise than filterless types, resulting in a more "analog" sound. “

The VDA-2 accepts TOSlink and Coaxial S/PDIF digital inputs. The signal is then fed to the CS8416 24 bit/192k low jitter input receiver, then to the Burr Brown PCM1794 balanced/current output DAC. According to CIA,  “our unique output stage is a fully discrete/zero feedback design and uses only a single transistor per output to insure the purity of the audio signal. Circuit board is high quality gold-plated 2 oz. copper with lead-free silver solder construction. “

The output arrangement allows for 2 pair of single-ended connections, for connection to two separate systems or recording devices, or a single pair of balanced outputs (with the optional VRX•1 cable pair). The external 14vAC power wal wart supply is included as a standard accessory.

Set Up and Listening:

My networked music system consists of a Mac Mini with the Snow Leopard operating system using the Logitech Squeeze Server software, accessing loss less FLAC files from three external Western Digital hard drives.  The network is managed by a Linksys router and switches. Everything is hard wired. The last step is an Ethernet cable that connects to the Squeezebox itself. The Squeezebox interface is controlled via a web browser, or via the supplied remote control, which I use almost exclusively.

Front View of the DAC
I installed the VDA-2 and the VAC-1 power supply then connected it to my Squeezebox via a Transparent Audio optical digital cable and a QED coaxial digital cable. I used a Pangea AC-9 power cord as well as a Shunyata Venom. The VDA-2 locked into the incoming signal immediately. I also used a pair of RS Silver interconnects terminated with Eichmann Silver Bullet Plugs for the outgoing analog signal to my preamp. The improvement over the analog outputs of the Squeezebox was nothing less than earth shattering. I mean not even close. It was like someone removed several blankets from the speakers. The terabyets of live soundboard and FM recordings on my hard drives sounded the best I have heard yet. The presentation was detailed, smooth, natural, and harmonically rich.

Working from memory, comparing the VDA-2 to the Benchmark DAC1 HDR, I think the CIA had a bit more flesh on the bone, and a more analog sound, where as the Benchmark presented things a few rows back, but maybe with the slightest bit more focus. I don't know which was more accurate, but both are superbly engineered and snag free products, so it will be a matter of taste. I was leaning towards the CIA.

I also fed the VDA-2 a signal from my Marantz 5003 CD player and it was a tougher call. The 5003 uses an excellent internal DAC chip and it has trickle down technology from the much more expensive Marantz players in the line. The signal fed through the CIA had a bit more midrange clarity, but I am talking just a bit more.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed endless hours of fatigue free listening sessions, and differences between various recordings were very apparent. Besides my cache of live recordings, I do have a small folder filled with purchased downloads, the two most recent being Sufjan Stevens digital only FLAC EP, All Delighted People, and various tracks by favorite band from the past five years, The Clientele, from the Merge records website. These studio recorded FLAC’s sounded as good as any CD player I have had in the system through the Squeezebox and CIA combo. Really. In my opinion the death of physical media may be over hyped, but downloads are definitely going to be part of the future. As a matter of fact, they are here.

One thing of note is that I did extensive comparisons between the optical input and coaxial input when connected to the Squeezebox specifically. This very easy to do, as the VDA-2 has a toggle switch on the front panel that allows you switch inputs.With out question I preferred the sound of the optical cable. I felt the sound was more refined; more detailed, and offered a deeper soundstage through the optical link with 16 bit/44k files. Others may come to a different conclusion, depending on the partnering equipment, environment, and other factors. I should also mention there is a phase switch on the front panel that can be used on the fly. There is a small, yet intense group of audiophiles who seem to want this feature. The Marantz SA-11S2 SACD player I reviewed also offered a phase switch..

Power Front
The VDA-2 handles 24 bit material with sampling frequencies up to 192 Khz, through the coaxial input. I happen to have a small collection of 24 bit 96 Khz FLAC's and they came through perfectly, and sounded quite stunning by the way. Most of these FLAC's consist of chamber music recordings, and the amount of texture and natural ambiance was incredible.  I can't even imagine if my entire collection was recorded at 24/96, but I am sure the golden eras of the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and Miles Davis, and many others were over before any one had ever heard of recording in digital, let alone “high resolution”.

Conclusion:

The Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 24 bit DAC performed flawlessly in my listening room in conjunction with my Logitech Sueezebox, and when connected to a Marantz transport. I loved the sound, and the ease of operation. It can be used in balanced mode with an optional adaptor, has one optical TOSlink and one coaxial digital input, and can be upgraded with the VAC-1 external power supply. I would strongly suggest this upgrade, as wal wart power supplies may introduce noise that could effect the generally low level signals that pass through a DAC.

The VDA-2 is also future proof, handling signals up to 24 bit and 192 Khz through its coaxial input. The one thing readers may notice is no USB input. For me personally, USB is a non starter. I really don’t want my computer interfacing with my audio equipment, except through a network.  I know I may be behind the times, for now, I use only high quality S/PDIF connections.

Power Rear
A DAC was considered a luxury ten years ago, as a way to upgrade your digital setup by sending out the signal from your CD player to a separate converter.  The thought was that the signal being sent was being improved as it was not subject to any power supply noise, jitter, or other problems that a one box solution might introduce. Of course the downside was it was a bit more complicated, and an now an extra cable and component was being put into the mix. However, today, a DAC is a no brainer for a serious music lover as media storage has become dirt cheap,  and new loss less file formats such as FLAC (plus others), and broadband internet connections have changed the game.

All CIA products are made in the USA, and are superbly built. They leave a small foot print, and are easy to fit into any rack or shelf. You can try the VDA-2 in your system almost risk free, with a 30 day in home trial, with a 10% restocking fee if returned. I think this is very reasonable.  Readers should take note that I have decided to make the CIA VDA-2 with the VAC-1 my reference DAC under $1500.  Until something comes along that beats it based on the parameters I outlined in the body of the review, on my rack it will stay. I purchased the VDA-2 at full price, and I have no regrets. Highly recommended, and those shopping for a DAC in the $1000 price range would be smart to put the VDA-2 up against all the other contenders.


SPECIFICATIONS:
  • VDA-2 24 Bit DAC: $599
  • VDC-1 Optional External Power Supply: approx $199 
  • Inputs: Toslink Optical, Coaxial SPDIF
  • Locking Frequencies: 44.1k-192k (Coaxial), 44.1k-96k (Toslink)
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz +/- 0.1db
  • THD: <.03% 20Hz-20kHz
  • Output Level: 2.25vRMS (Single-ended), 4.5vRMS (Balanced)
  • Dimensions: 4.40"w x 2.65"h x 4.40"d
  • Warranty: 1 Year Parts & Labor

CIAudio Info:

Reviewers Associated Equipment System 1:

  • CD Player: Naim CD5 XS with Flatcap 2X,
  • Preamp: Audio Research SP16
  • Amplifier: Audio Research VS55
  • Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, Audience 2 + 2
  • Cables: DH Labs, RS Cables, Kimber/QED/Acoustic Zen (AC)/Transparent (AC)/Element Cable, Shunyata, Pangea
  • Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Sound Anchors stands, Timbernation platform, CablePro Noisetrapper
Reviewers Associated Equipment 2:
  • CD Player: Marantz 5003
  • Music Server: Squeezebox 3
  • Tape Deck: Revox A77, HHB CD Recorder, Edirol 96/24 WAV recorder
  • Preamp: Belles Soloist 3
  • Amplifier: Revox A722, Belles Soloist 5
  • Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, Audience 2 + 2
  • Cables: Kimber/QED/Transparant/Shunyata(AC)/PS Audio(AC), Pangea Audio, RS Cables, Element Cables.





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